J.E.H. and Thoreau MacDonald: Father & Son Artists

Canada has a rich history of artists following in the footsteps of their artist parents. This is one of a series of blog posts telling their stories.

J.E.H. MacDonald and his son, Thoreau, may arguably be Canada’s best known father-and-son artists.

James Edward Hervey MacDonald (1873-1932) was a member of the Group of Seven, helping forge Canada’s distinct artistic identity through his bold and colourful paintings of our landscape.

Thoreau MacDonald (1901-1989), the only son of J.E.H. MacDonald and Harriet Joan Lavis, made his mark more with his sketch pad and illustrations (colour blindness forced him to work mainly in black and white).

Thoreau MacDonald grew up as a child and teenager surrounded by his father’s artistic explorations of the natural environment: the family farm in Thornhill, Algonquin Park, Quebec’s Gatineau countryside, and many other locales.

At the same time, Thoreau MacDonald was surrounded by a who’s who of Canada’s established and burgeoning artists: J.W. Beatty, Lawren Harris, Arthur Lismer, A.Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Frederick Varley, Franklin Carmichael, Tom Thomson and others. Some were known as the Algonquin Group of painters; later many would form the Group of Seven.

“The excitement of watching the Algonquin Group at work and the contact of the personalities which made up their numbers, kindled the boy’s interest in art,” according to A Dictionary of Canadian Artists.

Thoreau MacDonald met Tom Thomson, who shared space in the same Toronto studio as his father, and was the subject of one of Thomson’s oil sketches. The sketch shows a boy lying atop a lush green hill, head propped up on an arm, looking upwards as if daydreaming, and dressed like a junior explorer. The sketch called Daydreaming, dated 1913-15 and measuring 7.5 by 11.5 inches, sold at auction last year for more than $170,000.

After Tom Thomson died in Algonquin’s Canoe Lake in 1917, J.W. Beatty and J.E.H. MacDonald built a cairn near the spot. While J.W. Beatty piled and cemented boulders into a rough pyramid shape, the elder MacDonald wrote the commemorative inscription for the plaque.

Thoreau MacDonald began to study art under his father in 1919.

Like his father, Thoreau MacDonald began with sketches and illustrations, soon becoming a popular illustrator. But Thoreau never turned to painting, which his father is celebrated for.

Thoreau MacDonald illustrated an estimated 150 books over the next few decades. Among them books of poetry by his father, including West by East and other Poems, published in 1933, one year after his father died.

Thoreau MacDonald was a keen observer of the natural environment, living up to his name (he was named after the famed American naturalist Henry David Thoreau).

Thoreau MacDonald’s own work focuses on the natural environment, animals and everyday life on the farm (he lived on a farm in Thornhill, even as urban Toronto expanded around him). He was known for his original drawings, woodblocks, illustrations. Seven of his works were selected to be part of the Sampson-Matthews Ltd. silkscreen project: Winter Morning, Spruce, The Plough, The Snow Storm, Winter Evening, Country Road, and Wild Geese. All are indicative of his own style.

Thoreau MacDonald’s artistic career flowed out of his father’s, complementing it and paying tribute to it, while remaining distinct in its visual voice.

– Mark Skeffington, FineArtCollector.ca
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Biographical information sourced from: A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker. National Gallery of Canada, Artists in Canada database.